Portable DJ / Producer Tools: How to Build a Powerful Mobile Studio on a Budget

As humans living in an adaptable, mobile time, it’s natural to desire that our music be available anywhere the moment strikes us. Add to that the growing number of cloud-based, instant-streaming options and you can see that we’re in the midst of integrating our social desires with sound. How many times have you been at someone’s house, a club, a park and you have the desire to create? This week we examine the options for on-the-go creation with some suggestions for building a mobile studio to capture those impromptu moments. As with our last article on building a home studio, we are assuming that you already have a computer and software of choice to start with. We’ll be looking at interfaces for sound and performance as well as some hardware-based music options that let you take a break from the computer.

MIDI Controllers To Go

Korg NanoSeries 2 ($59 each)

The Korg NanoSeries 2 are micro MIDI controllers that comes in three pint-sized varieties (keyboard, faders and pads). They’ve become favorites for many musicians who want a lot of control in a very small space. Each of these controllers is about the same width as a 13″ Machook and runs off USB power. They can be customized to do just about anything you want and they are fairly well built for the size and price.

Akai MPK Mini ($89)

At least a few of us on staff (myself included) use this controller. Unanimously we love the portability and sturdy but lightweight construction as well as the combination of pads, keys and knobs that you can customize to heart’s content. The knobs are low-profile and won’t snap off when packed into your bag. The MPK Mini is almost exactly the same width as a Macbook or Macbook Pro and runs without the need for a power adapter. It’s also driver-free and class compliant, so you should be able to use it with Mac or PC and any music production software.

Novation Launchpad ($149)

Novation has picked up a loyal following with the slim and lightweight Launchpad Ableton Live controller. The button-based, USB-powered controller was designed specifically for Ableton Live but can be mapped to work with any MIDI compatible software. The user base for the Launchpad is extensive with many users sharing mappings for a plethora of performance and production

Maschine Mikro ($349)

Last Native Instruments released a smaller-scale, lower-priced version of their Maschine production software called Maschine Mikro. Mikro does everything that the larger-scale Maschine does but comes with a more compact controller. While the loss of some knobs and the smaller pads may not appeal to some users, the lower price and compact design are perfect for some. Maschine Mikro works as both stand alone software and as a plug-in device. The Maschine Mikro controller can be mapped to any software and comes with a set of templates for many other software packages.

Hardware To Go

Roland SP-404SX ($449)

Working on the computer can be tiring. Many of us use computers for work and it’s a nice change of pace to have some music production hardware to work with as an alternative. One of the most affordable and easy-to-use options on the market is Roland’s SP-404SX sampler. This device is quite simple and effective for real-time performance, with 10 banks of 12 pads that hold your audio content in high quality WAV format. That content is saved on a smart media card, so you could load up as much sample time as your heart desires with a few gigs of storage. On-board effects are generous and useful with the option of resampling  your parts to layer effects. The sequencer is solid, offering quantize and swing functions that are very easy to understand. To get a sense of the capabilities of this device, check out Alpha Pup’s Jonwayne rocking LA’s Echoplex with nothing but an SP-404.

Apple iPad ($499)

The iPad has become so ubiquitous that I hesitate adding the device to this list. On the other hand the iPad offers some of the most interesting and well designed music applications in existence with the ability to integrate on-the-go creations into your studio DAW setup. If you haven’t splurged on an iPad for yourself yet, check out our monthly updates and tutorials on iOS / iPad music production applications for to get a sense of what’s possible. In the above video, Dubspot instructor Matt Cellitti gets deep with Moog’s Animoog application for the iPad.

Sound To Go

Apogee One ($249)

Apogee’s One audio interface is deemed by many to be a fantastic value for mobile musicians. The small USB interface delivers stereo sound that is on par with Apogee’s higher-end units and uses the same DAC/ADC software architecture. The One offers one quarter inch (mono) line input, one XLR (mono) mic input, and a multi-function knob on top to control volume and recording levels. If that’s not enough bang for your buck, the One also offers a built-in condenser microphone “that has been fine-tuned by professional recording engineers to create Apogee’s Tuned Aperture Microphone technology.” From personal experience I can tell you that the microphone on this device sounds amazing.

Sennheiser HD-25-II ($199)

If I could give one piece of advice on headphones, that advice would be: Sennheiser HD-25. These cans are expensive – no denying that. They might even be inappropriate for a piece that is generally about budget minded music creation. But if I were to pick the perfect pair of ‘phones that could provide both studio-quality reference as well as perfect, isolated DJ and live performance sound – these are the ones.

Sennheiser PX 200 II ($69)

If you’d like to get that Sennheiser sound but don’t want to break the bank, I recommend the PX 200 II headphones. They are light, the sound fantastic and they fold into a creative pocket-sized shape to take with you. While the have much smaller drivers than the HD-25, the sound of these cans far exceeds their looks. Crisp high end sound is complimented by clean bass with minimal distortion.

Audio-Technica ATHM40FS ($69)

These Audio-Technica cans are high quality studio monitors that cost a fraction of the competition. These monitors are very transparent, comfortable and clean. They are more subtle than the Sennhiser while not quite as powerful as the HD-25s, the Audio-Technica ATHM40FS is far more powerful than the PX 200′s.

Bose Soundlink ($299)

The Bose Soundlink wireless Bluetooth speaker system is not a studio monitor and it doesn’t produce the best stereo field on the market. On the other hand it will rock a small party with more boom than a speaker this size should be able to produce. Add to that a fast Bluetooth connection and this small wonder can work with your iPhone, iPad, Android phone, computer, or any other Bluetooth ready device. I should note that in testing this device the Bluetooth does not play well with DJ and production applications (it works fine for Youtube videos, internet, playing your iPod songs and basic uses). But for the size, portability and battery life I don’t mind plugging in a 1/8 inch jack for great sound.

Logitech S715i ($99)

This speaker is the happy medium between portability, good sound, and an affordable price at just under 100 dollars. The Logitech S715i packs 8 drivers into a portable package with 8 hours of chargeable battery life and an iPhone dock. 1/8th inch connector will allow you to link up any other audio devices. The sound quality is great for the price range, with booming lows and nice separation from those 8 drivers. Comes with a travel case and a remote.

Altec Lansing Orbit MP3 / USB ($29)

If you’re looking for something small that will give better sound than your Macbook or your iPhone, the Altec Lansing Orbit speaker is a decent little reference for around thirty dollars. There are actually two versions – the MP3 model, which takes 3 AAA batteries and offers a 1/8 inch jack, and then there is the USB model which gets power and transfers sound via the USB cable. These are by no means audiophile devices, but for the price Altec Lansing brings some quality to this small speaker.

Michael Walsh is a producer of audio/visual art and a journalist living in Southern California. Read more of his work at soundsdefygravity.com